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14 July 2021

How the bicycle set women free

The populous and multifarious history of women’s cycling 

By Lola Seaton

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Elizabeth resolves to walk three miles across muddy fields to Netherfield, the rented estate of the wealthy bachelor Mr Bingley, where her sister Jane has come down with a cold and is too unwell to return home. When she arrives “with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise”, her appearance arouses “a great deal of surprise”. That she should have walked “in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible” to Mr Bingley’s haughty, malicious sisters. As soon as Elizabeth is out of earshot, the sisters begin “abusing her”: “She really looked almost wild.” “Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!” “To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum.”

Hannah Ross alludes to this episode in her new book, Revolutions, a global history of women’s cycling from its somewhat vexed emergence as a mass recreational activity in the late 19th century to its contemporary status as a professional sport. The Bingley sisters’ scandalised reaction to Elizabeth’s uncouth journey – its solitude, its muckiness, its parochial infringement of genteel custom – was typical of 19th-century attitudes, as Ross explains: women engaging in physical activity of any kind in public was considered improper (sports such as lawn tennis and croquet were acceptable for women because they took place “behind walls or in private gardens”).

Living in the early 19th century, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth is forced to travel by foot – “the carriage was not to be had; and as she was no horsewoman, walking was her only alternative” – but such attitudes to female mobility still prevailed by the end of the century when cycling first took off. The original iteration of the modern bike (with a diamond-shaped frame and standard-sized wheels) – the Rover “safety” – was invented in 1885. There had been bike-like contraptions around for a while before this, including the German inventor Karl von Drais’s “Laufmaschine” or “running machine”, which launched in 1817. This was “essentially two carriage wheels joined together by a wooden plank, with a cushioned seat for the rider”, who propelled the device “by running along the ground while seated”.

Drais’s wheeled – and brakeless – plank (descendants of which can still be found in children’s playgrounds) was superseded in 1867 by the Parisian blacksmith Pierre Michaux’s pedal-powered bicycle, which earned the moniker “boneshaker” thanks to “the deleterious effect the all-iron frame and wooden wheels had on the rider” (air-filled rubber tyres weren’t patented until the late 1880s). Next came the “high wheel” or “ordinary” – known as the “penny-farthing” in Britain – which arrived in the 1870s with its iconic, retrospectively absurd giant front wheel. But it wasn’t until the release of the “safety” – so named, presumably, because unlike its “high wheel” predecessor you could mount and dismount it from the ground – that cycling became truly popular.

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Although, rather astonishingly, “by the middle of the 1890s women’s bikes accounted for one-third of the market in the UK and North America”, early female cyclists often encountered “resistance and disapproval”, and sometimes violence. The suffragist and writer Helena Swanwick reported that London “bus drivers were not above flicking at me with the whip” when she cycled past in the early 1890s, and that she “was once pulled off by my skirt in a Notting Hill slum”. Some bystanders lobbed stones at passing female riders; Emma Eades, “reputedly one of the first women to cycle in London, was pelted with bricks” and “told to go home”. A reader of Washington’s Sunday Herald was moved to write in to the paper in 1891 to make known their view that a woman on a bicycle was “the most vicious thing I ever saw in all my life”, adding: “I had thought that smoking was the worst thing a woman could do, but I have changed my mind.”

The sources of such hostility and anxiety are predictable – cycling was considered unladylike, indecorous and possibly perilous. There was an array of pseudo-medical concerns about the physical and moral consequences of straddling the seat (rather than riding side-saddle, as women then did on horses). One Dr Arabella Kenealy was also perturbed by an affliction known as “bicycle face” – the disfigurement of the feminine charm of a woman’s countenance by the “muscular tension” involved in cycling.

There was associated uproar about the clothes women wore to cycle, some pioneers scandalously abandoning the customary heavy, long skirts, petticoats and corsets for nimbler bloomers or knickerbockers. These were widely regarded as indecent, although the gains in mobility, comfort and ventilation yielded by this so-called rational dress sometimes sound marginal: keen teenage cyclist Tessie Reynolds from Brighton, for example, abandoned skirts only to take up “wool knickerbockers, with a long jacket in the same fabric”.

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As Ross’s subtitle – “how women changed the world on two wheels” – suggests, the politics of women’s cycling (including their freedom to cycle unharassed in the first place) is only part of her story, though this alone ranges from 19th-century England to contemporary Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Revolutions also chronicles how women have used bikes for political ends – from Women’s Social and Political Union activists cycling to towns otherwise beyond easy reach to spread the word about the women’s suffrage movement, or pedalling away from arson attacks they’d perpetrated, to the Resistance using bicycles during the Second World War to distribute contraband literature or even to courier Jewish children to safe houses.

[see also: The freedom of driving]

Yet beyond the concrete ways in which bikes have been used for explicitly political purposes, there is also perhaps something ambiently or intuitively empowering about cycling, even as an everyday activity or means of commuting, which may partly explain resistance to women taking to the saddle.

Like many benign habits imposed upon one in childhood, cycling was a source of some irritation to me when I was young. It seemed we had to cycle everywhere. We couldn’t just go on holiday to France, we had to cycle there. Then there were our dad’s weekend bike races to which we had no choice but to accompany him – a long drive followed by hours of kicking a football around a boggy field adjacent to the track.

Cycling is now a mode of transport to which I am deeply attached – an attachment founded on the ease and belonging I feel on the road, which are no doubt a legacy of my early initiation. As an urban mode of transport it is unsurpassed, conferring agency, freedom, control. Cycling is – and feels – profoundly enabling.

Nowadays few are horrified by the “abominable sort of conceited independence” of female cyclists on London streets – an unexceptional sight, especially in recent years as new paths have made cycling so much safer, though female couriers are still less common. When I rode for Deliveroo the summer after graduating, I never saw any other women in turquoise (though anecdotally, that seems to be changing now). Arriving to deliver someone’s meal, I used to enjoy their surprise, and the faint sense that they were a little, residually, impressed.

Ross’s wide-ranging history of women on bikes contains some memorable stories – instances of great bravery, endurance, ambition, athleticism, adventuring. In 1963, Dervla Murphy, aged 31, set out from rural Ireland on a solo ride from Dunkirk to Delhi, “a six-month journey of around 3,000 miles through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India”. She carried a gun, which she had to use multiple times, including to shoot two emaciated (and possibly hallucinated) wolves who attacked her after she slipped off a road in Serbia and hit a tree.

Such isolated episodes stay with you, but they don’t coherently accumulate. Sometimes the object putatively unifying the material – the bicycle – can seem like a contrivance that risks stretching the history too thin. What, for example, do Simone de Beauvoir’s wartime cycling holidays with Sartre have to do with Missy Giove, the fearless champion of downhill mountain biking in the 1990s? I’m left unconvinced that their both riding bikes by itself makes them meaningfully part of the same history.

[see also: The dark side of our age of fitness]

The comprehensiveness and miscellaneousness of Ross’s gyno-velo-history also foreclose the development of an overarching story through which characters might grow vivid. Nor does the book advance an especially novel argument. The discussion of gender prejudices can feel a little rudimentary: when a hotelier remarks that her cleated shoes are “very sexy”, Ross explains (to whom, I’m not sure): “He was making a joke, but one that derives from the assumption that it is a woman’s responsibility to look attractive and feminine at all times.”

Ross’s enthusiasm is evident throughout but not always sufficiently contagious to propel you through the book without the momentum of a strong narrative. A more sustained and focused work of storytelling would have required a smaller cast and a more circumscribed subject. Yet that the history of women’s cycling is such a populous and multifarious one is also encouraging. The suffragist Susan B Anthony, Ross notes, dubbed bikes “freedom machines”, and “went so far as to credit the bicycle with having ‘done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world’”. This must be an exaggeration, but anyone who rides a bike will appreciate the sentiment.

Revolutions: How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels
Hannah Ross
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 352pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook